A/N: A 'shirabyoshi' is the historical predecessor to the Geisha, a cultured and educated woman who uses her skills in the arts to entertain an audience at court.
When she was eight, he saved her life.
When she was ten, he enjoyed her company.
When she was thirteen, he gave her away.
Imagawa Castle, its heavy mahogany beams framing peaceful rooms and gardens that brimmed with elegant serenity, was an imperfect symbol of the plotting violence and intrigue whispered between its inhabitants. The private reception room of the most powerful daimyo in the West perched atop the sweeping shingled stories of this mountain fortress. A small and extremely simple room, it required three floor fire pits to warm, which almost made up for icy blasts of air breezing in the open windows - the price of a breathtaking view of the dominated lands below. With its great height, the castle was easily defensible and the daimyo's privacy virtually impossible to invade.
Daimyo Yoshimoto of the powerful Imagawa clan sat in the seat of honor, his deep purple robes carefully arranged around him on the floor. Silently he eyed the legendary demon across his ceremonial sake table. Despite having heard stories of the eerie yellow eyes, long silver hair and scarred face, the warlord was unprepared for the sheer presence of the beast he faced, a feral violent energy whirling about him when he moved and lying in wait when he was still. Without even speaking, the demon had shot fear into his heart only akin to the terror he'd experienced in an accidental and almost deadly encounter with a wildcat. And the demon had had this effect on him merely by entering the room. Yoshimoto was careful not to let his discomfort show, but he was fairly sure the demon could detect it anyway.
The fine ceramic cups on the table between them were untouched, the sake not yet poured. Yoshimoto's courtesan, Noko, sat well back from the table, her knees tucked tightly underneath her opulent green robes, her hands placed flat on her thighs and her eyes lowered to the mat in front of her. She sat the appropriate number of paces behind him and to his right, waiting for a signal. He had not yet decided whether this visit warranted a polite toast of his best batch, and Yoshimoto had not survived so long or so successfully without being extremely wary.
For his part, Sesshoumaru was aware of the effrontery and felt an ice cold anger begin to build. Though he welcomed the lack of time-consuming ceremony that humans tended not to waste on youkai, the scent told him this was a fine brew and he'd been many months on the road without such pleasures.
"Your territory here in the Suruga province has expanded in recent years, and you've been successful in securing access to the Tokaido road into Edo," Sesshoumaru continued the conversation that had lapsed, seeking an expeditious way into the purpose of his visit. "This is to be honored." He did not nod his head, which would have displayed true honor. Two could play at this disrespectful game.
"Yes," the daimyo seemed pleased; though the twitch of an eyebrow made it was clear he had noted the slight. "It is a constant battle to claim more territory here in the West, but one which we are winning."
"Yet, you encroach more deeply into the domain of my heritage," Sesshoumaru allowed a note of warning to slice into his deep voice.
"I was not aware of this," Yoshimodo intoned carefully and probably honestly, most humans barely even recognized a youkai, much less their land claims. The inuyoukai detected no deceit in the warlord's statement, which was good, although he did detect fear, which was very good. "I'm sure you appreciate that my duty is to expand the influence of my Shogun, first and foremost. I have no interest in demon power struggles." Yashimoto was reminding his guest that the affairs of humans were more binding on him than any potential youkai obligations or offers.
"This is of no concern to me," Sesshoumaru stated rather flippantly, and definitely honestly. "Your human relations are yours to struggle within and if that is all they are, then they may continue on my lands." Yoshimoto frowned, finding Sesshoumaru's claim annoying, which suited the silverhaired being in front of him very well. "However," the youkai lord allowed the word hang there for a moment, "you may be unaware that you have begun to stir up trouble with your movements towards the East. Trouble of a youkai kind. Trouble which may make my efforts to reassert control over the Western youkai challenging." Yoshimoto's face remained implacable, but Sesshoumaru caught a fresh scent of sweat and smiled to himself. Perfectly positioned.
"If my human ties don't concern you, your youkai entanglements do not concern me," Yoshimoto said in an even tone, with an ease belied by his newly sharp scent.
"You think so, daimyo? My 'entanglements' will soon be yours, stirring those less… refined… than I, who may seek to destroy you in your own domain. Worse for you, their assaults are likely to threaten your control of that Tokaido Road you so jealously guard. Without it, your value to the Tokugawa clan becomes limited indeed." The man frowned again, finally understanding the threat and beginning to seek a way out, which Sesshoumaru had conveniently arranged. Ready to make the offer this human could not refuse, he shifted forward, enough to catch the man's gaze in his golden stare. "This may yet work to our advantage if we are both very," he chose his words carefully, "deliberate." Sesshoumaru raised his knee and propped an elbow on it, a sign that could be taken as either disrespect or an invitation to camaraderie. He would let the human choose which it would be. He hung his one arm casually over his knee, displaying long claws, one of which exuded a single green drop of poison. The drop fell to the mat and there was an audible sizzle. The daimyo's face paled a bit, but his expression was unchanged.
"What do you want?" Yoshimoto was losing patience and the rudeness of his direct question indicated he'd chosen the confrontational path for this conversation. Sesshoumaru clenched his teeth and felt his fangs pinch the inside of his lip. He had other options, but none so convenient as this.
"It is your choice, human," his voice barely betrayed his annoyance, carrying an unmistakable level of threat, "you may give me space on your land and in your household to establish a defensive position in this territory…," again he let the words hand in the air, "or I will take it."
Yoshimoto reacted as expected and let his smooth face take on the downward curves of a scowl.
"If you could take it so easily, we would not be talking, demon," he said in a low voice, "what do you really want?"
"I only say what I mean," Sesshoumaru remained unruffled, "But I will elaborate. It is more convenient for me not to have to defend this territory from the inside and the outside simultaneously." He narrowed his amber eyes at the man across from him, making clear his threat. "If you comply with my wishes, I will defend this territory from youkai threats you cannot even detect until they are upon you, slaughtering your livestock, razing your villages and destroying the road. It will also be convenient for me to defend your castle, since I will need it as my Command headquarters, where my commander will reside, and where I may come when I visit."
"And how often is that going to be?" Yoshimoto had dropped all pretense of civility, hating the corner position.
"Not often from your point of view," Sesshoumaru enjoyed the struggle on the man's face and sought to watch it fester. "Every few years or so, whenever I need to come this far West. Though it may not seem so to you, the East is less stable and requires my attention more often. With any luck, you and I will only meet a few more times before you die."
Yoshimoto's scowl deepened and Sesshoumaru saw him flick his fingers together nervously. This made him unprepared for the human's boldness.
"What assurance can you give me that it will remain 'convenient' for your troops to protect this castle when your 'person' is not present?" The man leaned forward aggressively. "What assurance can you give me that your demon beasts, or whatever they are, will find it 'convenient' not to raze the villages under the guise of 'protecting' them?"
Sesshoumaru sighed inwardly. Although in the end it was better not to have a stupid ally, it did make things more difficult up front. He prepared himself to make the offer, the best one he had, and he hoped for convenience sake that the man was wise enough to accept it.
"I will gift you my ward, the young girl you saw enter the grounds with me," Sesshoumaru kept his eyes level with the man's letting him see the seriousness of this offer. "She will make a fine addition to your court. As long as she resides here, it will be extremely 'convenient,'" he emphasized the word on purpose, "for me personally, and for my agents as well, to protect the castle." He noted with some satisfaction the man's incredulity at his offer and proceeded to remove the other barriers to their negotiation. "You may arrange her marriage as you see fit and her dowry will be my protection of her husband's lands." Although marriage had little meaning in youkai culture, Sesshoumaru understood the binding it had on humans. The daimyo began to grasp the value of his offer. Sesshoumaru laid what he suspected the man's last fear to rest, adding a sneer to his voice. "You needn't fear. She is fully human and has not been defiled by youkai or man."
"But she is of unclear breeding," the man was grasping for leverage, though he had none. "Uncouth and untrained in the ways of the court. I can't arrange her marriage without knowing her origins!"
"You know as well as I that such – history – is a matter of mere research by those under your control. And training is a simple thing if the reward is power," Sesshoumaru leaned in, not aggressively but to increase the intensity of the discussion, trying to bring it to a close. "She is bright, deferential and on the way to beauty. There is not another jewel in your trove so bright," Sesshoumaru ground his fangs again, "with the possible exception of perhaps of the maiden behind you." Flattery did not come naturally to him, but he was growing weary of this discussion and he wanted the sake, wafting its enticing scent in his direction.
Yoshimoto looked at him for some time, wary of this uncharacteristic compliment to his house, trying to read unreadable golden eyes. Finally, he gave a quick nod and gestured for the sake to be poured.
"Call in the girl," he said as the woman rose and moved to the little table, lifting the sake bottle.
"What?" Jaken emitted his most indignant squeak. "Out of my way, human!" He tried to dart between the guard's legs but was brought to an abrupt halt by a halberd that sliced into the tatami mat a centimeter from his longest toe.
"No further," the ceremonially dressed human intoned. "The lords say you stay out here."
"Lords? Both of them? Are you sure you heard right, you pathetic weakling?" Jakan spoke boldly into the face of a mask that looked as frightening as any youkai he'd ever met.
"I'm sure," the masked human said firmly.
Jaken's knees quaked. Damn! If only he could use the Staff of Two Heads! But Sesshoumaru had warned him about stupid mistakes and he clamped his mouth shut, swallowing his most common meal – his pride. When Jaken relaxed and stepped back, the guard moved away to allow Rin, who actually had been summoned, to pass into the room beyond. Jaken felt a sinking feeling in his chest.
Rin approached Sesshoumaru's back and took in the finely appointed room. Sparsely but exquisitely furnished, she'd never seen screens painted with such fine brushes on such subtle colors and she'd never dreamed that two blossoming limbs could be arranged into such bare perfection, their pink bursts of color floating against the backdrop of the open windows as though the cut bark still thrived outside. She felt a sense of awe at her surroundings as she kneeled behind Sesshoumaru, careful not to fall over in the tightly wrapped kimono.
That morning, Sesshoumaru had donned his full battle armor and come to her with an elaborately carved cedar box. From it he produced a stunning silk kimono and obi. The kimono's silk was the finest she'd ever touched and it was covered in carefully stenciled designs of soft lotus blossoms, sparkling crystal pools and lush vegetation. The obi, expertly crafted out of an even finer silk, almost shimmered like the water pattern woven into its lovely surface. The kimono was made to be worn by an adult woman and required many extra folds and tucks to fit her slight form. Sesshoumaru himself - Jaken being useless - had helped her tie the obi in its ceremonial knot. How had he learned such an intricate pattern of folding? She dared not ask.
She knew something important was happening when he called on her to accompany him to the castle on the mountain, wearing the rich clothing. She followed him as he had trained her to do very precisely over the past few months since Naraku had been destroyed. Since that day, he had become more distant, more remote in his thoughts than usual, which meant he almost never spoke to her. For reasons she didn't understand, fear had come to her as she walked behind him that morning and she found the courage for a question she thought he might answer.
"Sesshoumaru-sama," her mouth had been dry, "are we visiting human or youkai today?" They had begun visiting more and more settlements of late, and though Sesshoumaru always commanded Rin and Jaken to remain outside the place of his meeting, they were never called upon, and he had never asked her to dress in such finery before.
"Humans," he said curtly. "You will be polite. No disrespect will be tolerated." His voice was harsher than usual, feeding her fear.
"Have I embarrassed you before?" Rin's voice caught in her throat, fear and sorrow colluding to rob it from her. "I am so ashamed, my lord." Her steps slowed involuntarily as her knees threatened to buckle under her. The straps of the geta he'd given her felt tight and uncomfortable, her feet being accustomed to running free in the grass. She saw his head turn very slightly so that his delicately pointed ear and purple gashed cheek faced her.
His voice held its usual deep, soft and threatening tone. "You have not embarrassed me yet, Rin. See that you don't."
Somewhat heartened, she had sped up and together with Jaken they moved across the bridge and through the castle gates. And now she sat in the daimyo's private chamber, very aware that the lady carefully pouring sake for her lord was wearing a lesser grade of silk than she. Noticing this, she was suddenly thankful to Jaken who had babbled incessantly about the trivial details of court life ever since she could remember. She'd always thought his yammering a bother, but in the last two hours since coming here with Sesshoumaru, she had begun to appreciate the fact that there was a lot to know about living in a castle. A lot she did not understand.
"What else does she bring?" The daimyo, Yoshimoto, spoke as he replaced his sake cup carefully on the table. Rin looked at him from under her downcast lashes for the first time. He was tall for a human, though probably at least a half meter shorter than Sesshoumaru. Although one of the older humans she'd ever seen, almost forty, his face was large with a powerful jaw, the smooth skin of which rippled now under a sparse mustache as he glared at her lord with black smoldering eyes. She felt adrenaline shoot out of her heart, responding to a fear before she understood what it was.
"The silks she wears." Sesshoumaru's voice was calm, but Rin detected a note of tension she rarely heard in it. He was uneasy and this made her even more nervous.
"Pah!" Yoshimoto spat. "Cheap village production." A deep rumble vibrated the mats beneath them and Rin recognized the fearsome sounds of Sesshoumaru's youkai arousal. Yoshimoto also sensed the shift in attitude from his guest and he immediately softened his features.
"Noko-san," he flicked a finger at the woman who had poured the sake. "Review her garb." The woman rose hesitantly, her eyes still on the floor, and walked a wide circle to avoid Sesshoumaru as she approached Rin, indicating that she should stand. Rin stood, following Noko's unspoken instructions to hold her arms out, letting the heavy silk sleeves fall to the floor where Noko could examine them. As she moved around Rin, the girl felt the woman's eyes and her fingers probe more than the silks, and a deep blush spread across her cheeks as Noko then gestured for Rin to sit again. Noko moved to kneel next to Yoshimoto and speak in hushed tones to him.
"Ah!" A fine sheen of sweat appeared on Yoshimoto's brow. "No wonder I didn't recognize it. Fine silk from the mainland. Please forgive my indiscretion." The rumbling began to subside in volume, allowing the humans in the room to relax only slightly.
"So where is this great army that will protect my lands in return for her well-being?" Yoshimoto's tone carried doubt and Rin began to understand, her heart splintering silently in her chest.
"Come," the youkai lord gestured to the open balcony and they rose, Sesshoumaru flicking a claw to tell her she should follow. "I would have my Lieutenant join us." The guard was dispatched to bring Jaken along and Rin was moved to a position on the balcony well away from the two senior men, her heart beating against her ribs. She looked out from the side of the low mountain where the castle perched and saw the rolling hills, orchards and farmlands of three very prosperous villages spread out between the castle's fortifications and the mountains on the next horizon.
Jaken joined their lord and on Sesshoumaru's signal the Staff of the Two Heads belched a red plume of flame, shooting its deadly heat out into the air to scatter a circle of hunting hawks. A visual ripple, experienced like an illusion to the eye, spread across the landscape before them as the bushes, grasses and trees shifted and a multitude of lesser youkai devolved from this movement, blanketing the land as far was the eye could see. All the humans, including Rin, felt their blood run cold.
A barrel-chested creature in armor appeared below them and leapt the three stories easily up to their balcony. He was a powerful wolverine youkai who quickly demonstrated to the humans the length of his claws by extending and retracting them a number of times.
"This is my regional Commander, Kansei," Sesshoumaru's voice was smooth, enjoying taking the upper hand. "He will be my agent in your lands; you will treat him as you would me."
Yoshimoto's face remained impassive as he acknowledged the new youkai by the same curt nod with which he'd greeted Sesshoumaru, a move which slighted both of his guests, but did not surprise them. Although she did not think the youkai saw it, so enjoying their dominant position were they, Rin was aware of a burning hatred seeding itself in the daimyo's heart at that moment.
The party moved quietly back inside and the humans sat back down. Sesshoumaru remained standing with his back to the open landscape and Kansei to his right and back one pace.
"If she is mistreated in any way," he said in a threatening tone, focusing his youkai energy around him until his smooth silver hair swirled in its breeze, "I will hear of it and Kansei will have you pay in blood." Sesshoumaru turned to leave.
"My lord," she couldn't help herself. Her voice and her grief betrayed her and she spoke out of place. "Is that army the price for me? Or am I the price?"
"Yes." He was gone in a whirl of silks and crackling energy that made the hair on her neck stand up. Jaken ran at his heels, only taking time for a sad glance behind.
Rin did not move. Left behind. Left alone.
Sakura petals floated lazily in the air the day Sesshoumaru returned for an extended visit six years later. He was accompanied to the Imagawa court by Jaken and Kansei. Despite Rin's presence and the promise of her dowry, Sesshoumaru credited Kansei with the excellent relations he enjoyed with the Imagawa clan, and the relative peace among the youkai factions as well. The Commander had stealthily removed those among both youkai and human courts that opposed the alliance, and soon the only ones left agreed that the pact was for the best of all. Kansei was also responsible for maintaining order in the unruly youkai ranks, ensuring the honor of Sesshoumaru's word in preventing his troops from slaughtering and abusing the humans under their 'protection.' Humans were weak as individuals, but they had uncanny power when united as that damnable Oda Nobunaga had proven of late, and Sesshoumaru had better things to do than deal with an enraged human territory.
Unfortunately, Kansei had found it necessary to dispatch Yoshimoto himself two years into the alliance, but he had done so only with the permission of Sesshoumaru once the youkai lord had held an audience with the daimyo's logical successor. Satisfying himself that Ii Naomasa would make an even better ally than his clan leader, Sesshoumaru had allowed Yoshimoto's execution, which Kansei expertly conducted by impersonating Nobunaga himself, sneaking into the daimyo's command camp and slitting his throat. The new diamyo, Noamasa, was young but had a reputation as a devious strategist, and his troops were fearsome, adorning themselves in blood red armor and earning the nickname among humans of the red devils. Sesshoumaru liked these qualities in the human as they seemed closer to the tactics of a youkai, and they were something he could understand. For the most part, human culture confounded him.
During that brief and very clandestine first meeting with Naomasa, the youkai lord has inquired after Rin and was assured by Kansei that she was well cared for. Now, so much time had passed that he did not give her a second thought as they took their places at the head table for the feast in honor of his first official visit since establishing their alliance. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew she was still well or Kansei would not have allowed relations to remain so jovial at the table.
Sesshoumaru was well into his second bottle of expertly crafted sake when his eyes focused on the stunningly beautiful and familiar young woman performing a traditional dance, wearing the costume of a shirabyoshi entertainer. Her hair, no longer falling free about her shoulders as it once had, was tightly bound up under a black tateboshi hat. Her face, highlighted in white paint and ruby lipcolor, was a refined mask of its former, childish, beauty. She had changed, but he could still see the sunny sparkle of Rin behind this, her new form. He watched her move through the dance, using her traditional samurai clothing and katana as props, expertly making them part of the story her body told as she swirled and shifted about the room. Despite her role as entertainer, he noted with some pride the ease with which she held and flourished the blade, having obviously received training in its use as a weapon. Clearly a delight to the gathered nobility, she completed the dance and moved to begin playing the biwa, in a seat of honor behind Naomasa.
Unlike all the other women in the room, furtively looking away from the youkai, her eyes concentrated on him as she played the instrument to perfection, its deep, mournful notes vibrating the air between them. Sesshoumaru gazed into those eyes as he took another sip of sake and suffered an unfamiliar flush of embarrassment when the smallest drop of the fiery liquid clung to the corner of his mouth and he was forced to lick at it with his tongue. Had she been here the whole time and he hadn't known? How could he not have picked up her scent? The flush stayed on his cheeks, deepening his youkai scars to the darkest shade of plum wine.
Kansei, sitting next to him, allowed himself the risk of commenting on his lord's predicament. "Beautiful, isn't she?" The tone of his voice bespoke of his own appreciation. Sesshoumaru merely cleared his throat and carefully set the delicate sake cup down. Kansei recognized the slightly glassy eyed stare he'd only seen on his lord's face once or twice before.
"How old is she now?" Sesshoumaru inquired.
"She's not sure, but we figure she must be about nineteen or twenty," Kansei was enjoying Sesshoumaru's discomfort greatly but decided not to press his luck with the fearsome creature at his side. "I'm sure you didn't recognize her. Who knew that human females change their scent when they mature?"
Sesshoumaru began parsing the scents in the room, sifting through the steaming plates of fish and roots humans ate and the faint wisps of incense from the priests' purification rituals earlier in the day – probably due to his impending visit - isolating all but the sensual aroma that clung to those slow rhythmic tones she sent from her fingers as they plucked at the strings on the large lute in her lap. Her fragrance was beautiful, a hint of rose water laced in with some kind of fine powder he didn't recognize, and a sweet human scent he'd only detected in the presence of women. The look in her eyes and the scent of her blended in him, threatening to distract him from the conversation he was supposed to be having with Kansei and Naomasa who had reentered the room after a brief departure.
Naomasa sat down casually in his place next to Sesshoumaru and Kansei. Although more slight in build than Yoshimoto, this man moved with a wiry step and seemed always ready to dart away. He noted Sesshoumaru's gaze, and although Naomasa could not pick up the signs of youkai arousal that Kansei could, the daimyo was not inexperienced in the ways of women or their effect on males of any species.
"You haven't seen Rin-san since she was a child, have you Sesshoumaru-sama?" The daimyo let a familiar grin crease his wily face – too familiar.
Kansei growled at him and he let the grin drop.
"I am pleased she is well," Sesshoumaru commented dryly, feeling recovered… almost. "But I am surprised, Naomasa, surprised you would have such a lady in your court providing entertainment, even as an honored shirabyoshi. Does her future husband not protest?" Sesshoumaru set his cup down so that it could be refilled by a passing shirabyoshi of lesser rank. This was, after all, one of the points of conversation he had planned this night. He and Kansei desired to move some troops further south, out of Naomasa's territory. The only unknown factor in the decision remained an understanding of Rin's future marriage and what commitment it would lay on the Lord of the West. Sesshoumaru had frankly expected the girl to be married off well before now and believed he had reserved his troops long enough. Kansei had been unable to learn of the marriage plans from Rin herself and he and his agents were not trusted well enough in human gossip circles to have found out through other means.
"She will not be married," said Naomasa, much to the youkais' surprise.
"Why not?" Kansei stepped seamlessly into his negotiator's role, and though Naomasa could not tell, Sesshoumaru detected his commander's heartbeat increase its tempo in a sign of clear excitement, a fact of which he took note.
"To speak frankly," Naomasa flitted his eyes back to the girl under discussion, "you've done your job too well in this region, Sesshoumaru-sama." Naomasa spoke in a lower voice. "The lesser lords feel secure in my protection, which is assured by your interests here, and they shit in their boots when they think of having to deal with you directly, as they would if they took her for a wife. I would take her myself," he glanced at her again and it was clear he was telling the truth, "but I have another alliance to ensure."
Sesshoumaru felt a strange mix of things pool with the sake in his belly. At first was the small bit of anger that his bargain had been broken, the one he'd carefully calculated to serve all his interests, including knowing that she would have a chance to comfortably fit into a well-off human social unit. There was no greater shame, he thought, than being an outsider without status or place. But then, the pragmatic benefits of the situation occurred to him. She did not suffer, having established an honored place in the daimyo's court. And even more importantly, his obligation to her future house was released and there would be no limitation on his troop movements, neither now nor in the future. He raised the cup to his lips again, a private toast to good fortune.
As the evening wore on and he enjoyed the sight, sounds and smells of her across the room, a rare warmth of satisfaction overcame him. Not only was she beautiful to rest his eyes upon, but watching her move and dance, he enjoyed the living symbol of one of his most productive political arrangements to date. He caught Kansei looking at her at least as often. Watching the unrestrained desire in the wolverine at his side, Sesshoumaru realized that since her value as an instrument of politics was now limited to the current alliance, between himself and Naomasa, Kansei might be thinking of other alliances she could consummate.
When the night came to a close in the tired hours of the morning, Sesshoumaru leaned over the comatose body of Naomasa and said to Kansei in an undertone, "I would have Rin play for me in my private chamber." Kansei nodded. As they rose, he made a decision he'd been debating all night and leaned over to snag his Commander's sleeve, lowering his voice to a low rumble. "Claws off her." Kansei's face might have drooped a bit, but he nodded in understanding and Sesshoumaru was assured of his commander's obedient deference to his superior's wishes. The wolverine may want the girl, but he would not challenge his lord for her. Smoothly, Kansei moved over to speak with Rin as Sesshoumaru melted into the darkened hallways.
Walking through the wide and open walkways between halls, the ancient wooden flooring creaking under his step, Sesshoumaru breathed deeply of the mountain air, letting it clear his head of the music, chatter and drink. The faint chirps of crickets from the lowlands reached his sensitive ears and lulled him, building on his satisfaction. His territory was secure in this Western province, his troops loyal and his belly full.
The servant woman that waited for him in his chambers had her eyes downcast and reeked of fear as he entered.
"Stop trembling!" he said to her roughly as he held his arm out, waiting for her to remove the obi sash on his outer armor. "It makes you smell bad." This had the unfortunate effect of making her more fearful to the point he thought he would gag on her stench. Nauseated, he sent her away, disgusted and not yet undressed. Human females! What does my clan see in them?
He moved to open the screen that looked out on his private mountain garden, its carefully shaped foliage and trickling stream calmed his anger and cleared the room of her odor. Before he had decided whether to remove his armor himself or call for another servant, he heard the brush of feet on the mats outside the screened entrance to his chamber.
"Come!" he called, annoyed.
It was Rin, wearing his mother's exquisite kimono, the one he'd dressed her in six years ago when he gave her away. Her hair remained bound, though free of the ceremonial hat, and her face was still smoothed in its makeup mask, her lips cherry red.
"Sesshoumaru-sama." The young woman bowed properly and kept her eyes lowered. This was a different Rin, not like the girl he remembered running freely around him in her youth, and not like the lovely vision playing her music so boldly in the entertainment hall.
"Rin," he said carefully, "will you remove this armor? That fool they gave me was useless. You remember how to do it, I presume?"
She bowed again and rose from her position near the door to approach him. He felt her heart beat as if it were his own, accelerating and rising in his chest. She held her hands out to accept the Tenseiga as he laid it gently across her palms, gliding to the finely polished table where she placed it reverently on a katana stand. As she turned back to him, he lifted his arm and allowed her to approach and stand within his aura, warming it as he warmed hers. Slowly and carefully she removed his large white fleece, unwinding it from his shoulder and untying it from his belt; she released him from the vivid yellow and blue sash, letting the silk slide through her fingers and catching it before it slipped to the floor; next she freed him one-by-one of the buckles, cinches and ties that bound his youkai bone armor tightly to his body.
She moved around him, almost as if she were performing that hypnotic dance he'd watched earlier in the evening, and he was pleased to see that her time with humans had not spoiled her knowledge of how to be in his presence. She still touched his clothing with respect for his dignity and respect for the heritage of the ancient warrior's accoutrements themselves. He also noticed that her body possessed a new elegance she'd never had as a child. Because he couldn't help it, he inhaled that delicate rose scent he'd smelled in the entertainment hall, a scent he now associated with sake and beauty.
She laid his armor aside carefully, and held the shoulders of his white and crimson decorated suikan and kosode as he moved smoothly out of them. Hanging them on the stand, she came back quickly with his more informal yukata. Before she placed it on his shoulders, he saw her eyes take in his strong chest muscles and move to fix on the stump of his arm, the scars many years old by now. Suddenly he remembered when she had been a child and how it had fascinated her, but looking at her now, he saw something more than fascination, he saw sorrow and though he thought to be angry, not wanting her pity, he felt some level of appreciation for her feelings nonetheless. She caught him looking at her and moved quickly to drape the yukata over his shoulders, covering the wound. She then untied his hakama, reaching under the yukata around his waist to unclasp the pants from the tie at his back. Though she was careful not to touch him, he felt the heat of her silk-enclosed arms encircling him and the closeness of her chest, sending a flush through him. She helped him step out of the pants, carefully lowering her eyes. As she tied the yukata's obi at his trim waist, he felt her fingers as they pressed gently into the flesh of his belly through the smooth silk and was shocked to feel the beginnings of desire rise in him. He looked down on her gleaming hair and took in her scent again. It intoxicated him. Although he should not have enjoyed the routine undressing, he had done so, very much.
Next she moved to pour him tea at his small table and then, as he sat down, glided back to take up her instrument, kneeling an appropriate distance from his seat near the window. She had been well trained to entertain noble men.
"Do you wish me to play for you?" she asked in barely a whisper. He nodded. Her fingers took to the strings, and he watched her. And she allowed him to watch her. Her eyes looked directly into his again while she played the lulling music and he was aware of a strange stirring in him, but confused by it. It was not merely desire, which could be excused as a natural reaction to physical touch, but something more. Her eyes drew him in, weaving memory and yearning into the exciting jolt of her touch and the soothing balm of her music and it disconcerted him greatly. Despite what was in fact brewing within him, he should feel nothing in her presence; nothing but satisfaction for a political pawn, well placed. Besides, she was human and young and he'd never found such a female in the least bit interesting. He'd had many youkai mates over the course of his long life, but none had given him this particular stirring. Perhaps it was the bond forged when he'd saved her life so many times when she was young and vulnerable. He'd enjoyed her company then, a refreshing counterpoint to Jaken's incessant prattle. They had been alone, unable to raise an army until Naraku was obliterated. They had been… companions. Maybe it was all these things together he was feeling. She bent her neck to look at the strings beneath her fingers and another, stronger, jolt of desire shot through him as he looked at the supple smooth skin bared to him. He felt it build in his sex and blossom out into his limbs. Had he been alone, he might have squirmed for a moment to release the energy building in him.
A horrible thought came upon him then and he recoiled from it, even as his face remained stolid, listening to the sparse but perfectly played notes. Could it be because she was human that she did this to him? Could this be the 'love' his brother whined about when he grieved his dead mikos? Perhaps, without regard to his great efforts, Sesshoumaru had not escaped his family curse after all. Even as this horrid realization overtook him, he was aware that the stirring was pleasant, and despite outside appearances to the contrary, Sesshoumaru, the Youkai Lord of the West, was not in the habit of denying himself things he found pleasurable.
When her music came to an end, Rin took a moment to tune the strings and he decided he wanted her to speak, to hear her voice.
"Tell me, Rin," her name came to him so easily, "are you content?"
Her fingers did not stop their delicate motions to tighten and pluck the strings, but he heard her heart speed up in her chest.
"Yes, my lord," she said quietly.
"That won't do," he said more sternly than he'd intended. "Tell me of your life."
"It is… as you wished it," her voice remained low, and he detected a quavering emotion in it.
"As I wished it…" He reflected on this. "Yes, it is as I wished it." His next words sounded strange in his ears, "And I owe you thanks for the peace you've made possible in my lands these six years." He thought it odd that he was now giving her credit for what he'd always attributed to Kansei's cunning.
Her eyes lifted to his for the first time since the music stopped. He thought he smelled the salt of tears and saw a glisten around the deep brown of her irises.
"You are sad," he said, uncomprehending. "Do you not appreciate the life I gave you?" His double meaning hung between them and his words shocked her. She placed the instrument aside and quickly positioned her fingertips together on the mat in front of her knees, bowing deeply to him.
"Forgive me, Sesshoumaru-sama! I meant no disrespect," she said, her face to the floor and unreadable to him.
"Then why are you sad?" He allowed some of the confusion and annoyance to seep into his voice. "You have a fine place in a wealthy court. You are beautiful to look at, and you are protected by human and youkai alike." Something occurred to him then, looking at her in the kimono he'd given her six years previously, and he wondered aloud, "do they not supply you with adequate clothing?"
Rin smiled impulsively and raised her hand to cover her mouth as she sat up, careful not to expose her teeth and be considered hopelessly rude. "Yes, they have given me more clothing."
"Good," he said, feeling slightly foolish and wondering if it were she or the absurd situation he found himself in, speaking privately with a human woman that made him feel so… he didn't even know what this feeling was called, it was so unfamiliar to him.
"I have all that I need," she said as she picked up the instrument again. "Perhaps…," her eyes flicked up at him briefly before finding the strings again, "I have missed you."
Her words stunned him, but even more surprising than their intimacy, recognizing a relationship that he'd barely even acknowledged at the time it had truly existed, was the strange happiness they brought to his heart. Some part of him cared that she felt the void of his company.
"Then you are a sentimental fool," the words came out of him naturally, although he wasn't sure if he spoke to her or himself when he uttered them.
"Yes," she agreed quietly and she began to pluck the strings again, playing a sad and sorrowful tune. Her eyes found him again and held him, riveted. The glisten and sharp smell of salt hovered there, pulling at him. He was becoming very uncomfortable; she was making him think of things and feel things.
As the song came to an end, he spoke again. "Naomasa-san tells me that you will not be married. Is that to your liking?"
Rin was silent, and she raised her eyes to look out the open screen doors, into the night sky, twinkling with starlight. "I do not have a preference," she said softly.
"I did try to arrange for you to be married." It was like someone else speaking through him, this entity that wanted to give her an explanation for his actions. He never explained himself, especially to humans!
"I know," she smiled at him and the stirrings sped up. He was too uncomfortable. It was time for her to go.
"Rin," he said. "Leave me now." Silently she bowed and rose. He smelled he sting of salt in her wake, blending with the scent of rose.
The next day as Sesshoumaru rode out of the castle gates with Kansei at his side, Jaken trailing along behind in a very undignified manner – why did he put up with that twit? – his Commander leaned over and asked, "Did Rin's music please you last night, Sesshoumaru-sama?"
"No," he said impulsively. "It did not."
He had barely taken in the fact that he'd acted so uncharacteristically as to be impulsive of all things, when he sensed a shift in the powerful youkai next to him, a quickening of excitement, and he turned to catch the wolverine's eye with a menacing dark amber stare. He spoke impulsively once again. "But she is not to be touched. Even more so than before, I make you her protector." Surprised at himself for implying a claim he had no intention of making, he almost reversed his statement, but then decided that being impulsive twice did not excuse it a third time.
As he had anticipated, this news did not sit well with Kansei, who masked a scowl as he bowed his head in acknowledgement. This was not good, this sowing of bad seeds between them. Sesshoumaru left his lands, so peaceful and well managed, feeling very unsettled.
Rin watched the figures grow smaller as they moved further into the distance. She noted the diminutive form of Jaken and some small part of her wished she had been able to speak with him.
She thought on the previous night with mixed feelings.
He had not changed at all. His power, beauty and icy demeanor were exactly as she had remembered them.
He had left her yet again. Left her behind. Left her alone.
No, he had not changed. It was she who had changed.
Ten more years passed, and it felt in the youkai court as ten months did to humans. One autumn day Jaken came rambling into court, huffing and begging to speak with Sesshoumaru privately. Knowing the imp was his most loyal servant, if not his most cunning, the Lord of the Western Youkai allowed him in for a private meeting. He sat, overlooking his personal gardens and idly watching the coi circle the precisely placed stones in the pool beneath his patio, while Jaken stood looking up at him from his tiny height, a tea table between them.
"My lord," Jaken bowed for the hundredth time, "there is news from the spies that Kansei is allowing our youkai troops to plunder village storehouses."
"Do they need the rations?" Sesshoumaru did not like to hear anything negative about his Commanders, Kansei in particular.
"No, lord," the imp's big yellow eyes bulged even more than usual, "They do not take it for their own consumption, merely destroy it and move on." Sesshoumaru was silent, unhappy about everything this affront to his honor could mean.
"Is Naomasa aware that it is Kansei and his troops?"
"The spies do not believe so, lord, but they are not sure." Jaken shuffled his feet a bit, "it is so hard to find reliable human spies who do not get themselves killed with too much regularity."
Sesshoumaru ignored Jaken's lament. "If this is true, it means potential instability in our relations with the Imagawa clan," he mused out loud. Privately, he thought to himself that it portended internal dissention he could ill afford.
"Yes, lord," Jaken intoned seriously in agreement. "Such instability would be bad."
"I do not need your opinion to confirm my own!" Sesshoumaru lashed out verbally at his trusted servant. "Impudent!"
"Yes, lord," Jaken bowed his head, used to the abuse and recognizing it for a twisted form of love, since Sesshoumaru was never so generous in his insults with the remainder of his retinue. Anyone else, he would simply kill for such 'impudence.'
"We will visit Naomasa again." Sesshoumaru pronounced. "We leave tomorrow. Send word ahead to Kansei and Naomasa. We meet in a week's time."
"Yes, lord." Jaken backed out of the room.
On the trip west, as they moved past jewel-colored forests and drying brown fields, Sesshoumaru found himself wondering at Kansei's actions and frustrated with his lack of intelligence on Noamasa. He reviewed the contents of every report, thought through every strategic implication, and concluded that the only reason he could imagine for his Commander's undermining actions might be that the headstrong youkai might actually hold a lasting desire for Rin, and resented his lord's instructions that he not touch her or claim her for his own. How stupidly like a wolverine!
At the thought of Rin, however, he felt that stirring again in his belly, the one he'd worked to put away since his last visit. The one he'd been successful at putting away until this issue had come up. He grumbled to himself, his face remaining placid for the benefit of his traveling companions.
His political mind began to click through options and soon he had lit on a plan. He would make Rin his human spy and she would report to him through Jaken, bypassing Kansei altogether and allowing her to report on both his commander and Naomasa. It was plausible that Jaken, her childhood overseer, would be lonely for her and wish to visit. This would solve two problems for him of having insight into the human court and keeping Kansei on his toes. He was pleased with himself for thinking this up until he met with Kansei and realized the depth of his problem.
While Jaken had requested their meeting outside the castle gates, Kansei's messenger had countered with a request that they come into the great hall, where his commander was conducting a military strategy discussion with Naomasa. This challenge over logistics alone put Sesshoumaru on alert, but his unease was heightened when he saw his subordinate in the flesh.
"Welcome to the West again, my lord," Kansei bowed low, and Sesshoumaru was shocked at the scent of anger that flowed off the wolverine to assault him.
"Thank you, Commander, for continuing such fine stewardship of my Western borders." Sesshoumaru's formality was just that, and the flick of Kansei's ears told the inuyoukai that he knew it as such. They walked together into the entertainment hall and sat at their honored seats. The tension between them was in marked contrast to their last, more jovial, meal in this place.
The evening progressed as expected, Naomasa plied them with excellent sake and the conversation was mild. Naomasa did not bring up the plundered stores and Sesshoumaru began to wonder, not for the first time, at the effectiveness of Jaken's spy network. His eyes continued to rove the room until finally Naomasa asked if Sesshoumaru would like Rin to come out and play for them. Sesshoumaru nodded and caught the glint of anger in Kansei. So he had been right, Kansei was upset over Rin.
As she came forth, and the scent of rose water curled around him, Sesshoumaru felt a flood of memory as he looked upon her, once again wearing his mother's fine kimono with the shimmering water obi. She had changed yet again and, unlike when he had dressed her in it years ago, she now filled the delicate fabric to perfection. Looking to her face without makeup this time, it's beautiful bare color of cream, he was struck once again with her beauty as with the maturity he saw looking back at him briefly through her eyes before she glanced down to her instrument. She had fully developed into her womanly form and moved with even more grace. He was captivated by her movements as she tuned her biwa, turning the routine activity into a dance with her hands, and then catching his eyes as she began to play and refusing to let him go. After a moment, he felt a discomfort in his chest and realized he'd stopped breathing. Self-consciously taking a deep inhale, he glanced to his companions to see if they'd noticed and was struck with the look on Kansei's face as he watched her. He was completely smitten and enraptured.
The full implications of the situation came upon Sesshoumaru at this point. Kansei hadn't just fixed on the girl as a conquest, the damn fool had fallen in love with her. Sesshoumaru had hoped when he had chosen a distant cousin for the position, that he would be getting the strengths of the inuyoukai clan in his most senior field commander; unfortunately, in addition to that inborn ability, he had picked up one of the clan's greatest weaknesses, the cursed infatuation with human women.
As the sake continued to flow and Rin's music wrapped around his senses, Sesshoumaru studiously ignored Kansei's increasing excitement at his side, and his own stirrings as well, which came up out of the darkness with what he assumed was a sake-induced ferocity. Consciously, he focused on continuing to plot his way back to stability in his ranks, understanding now the depth of Kansei's interest in Rin. He still liked the idea of making Rin a spy, but perhaps the best way to counter Kansei's treachery was to buy him off, to give the girl to him in exchange for renewed loyalty.
Then it occurred to him that this must have been his Commander's plan all along, and this thought made him furious, feeling blackmailed and captured in devious entanglements out of his control. As he thought on it longer, it did occur to him that giving the girl to Kansei would be the most expeditious way out of the situation. Kansei enjoyed great loyalty from the troops in this region and if she were his gift rather than Kansei's demand, it would neither be – nor appear to be – blackmail. Although not all his inner voices were satisfied with this approach, some very unhappy he noticed, he had settled on it by the time the evening was through.
"Kansei," he said, leaning once again over the snoring form of Naomasa, "tomorrow, I would see you and Rin together." He leveled a gaze at his Commander which he was careful to calibrate not to be threatening in any way. "We have some realignments to discuss." Kansei's face was wary, but Sesshoumaru felt the anger dissipate somewhat. Good. This was the intent. "Make sure to bring the counter-spy youkai with you," Sesshoumaru continued. "This is to be an extremely private conversation."
Kansei bowed his head in understanding acquiescence and Sesshoumaru felt relief. He rose and walked slowly to his chambers, once again enjoying the crisp night air - only a hint of the earth's small autumn deaths in its scent. Filling his lungs fully, he exhaled the satisfaction of having averted a military insurrection.
When he entered his rooms, he was shocked to see Rin sitting quietly, waiting for him.
"What is the meaning of this?" he demanded, feeling unsettled very suddenly. "Why are you here?" It was all he could do to keep a fluster from his voice and a flush from his cheeks. What was wrong with him?
"Forgive me, Sesshoumaru-sama," Rin bowed deeply. "Naomasa himself commanded me to assist you tonight." He detected a slight note of amusement in her voice. "And all the other women were afraid to come to you."
While their fear did not surprise him, Naomasa's personal involvement in his servant selection did. What was that snake up to? Once again, he reminded himself that the chaotic affairs of humans were merely a distraction, one which he paid Kansei and others handsomely to manage on his behalf. While the suspicions and potential plots wound around in his head, he was disconcertingly aware that her scent was winding around his heart. And it was his heart that insisted on using his mouth just then.
"Well, then," he said, snapping the screen shut behind him and moving into the room, "you may entertain me."
He stood to let her undress him, as she had a decade prior. And as they had those years before, her movements spelled him, mixing in a blend with the stirrings he'd felt yet again, fresh and alive even after so many years lain dormant. But unlike before, her grace and the quiet rustle of her silks brushing against his; her scent and the increased speed of her heartbeat as she removed his clothing; her touch and the heat of her skin which came to him through the thin silk of his undergarments; all these things were different. She was no longer a child or even a young woman, and yet she moved with the same innocence and reverence around him that she had when she had been a child.
Suddenly and impulsively, he felt the great desire to lower his head to hers and take her lips… but he caught himself as his head began to bend towards her and his mind intervened with unwelcome but necessary thoughts. You have a plan to use her, don't ruin it. It's a trap and she's the bait. This last thought bothered him. Could she be part of Kansei's plot? Maybe it wasn't she his commander wanted at all, or maybe he already had her and he was really after something more precious? Could she be colluding with the wolverine to blackmail him for wealth or land? He thought he must try to understand the depth of his Commander's treachery before executing his plan on the 'morrow. Taking a deep breath, he moved away as she finished tying his yukata's obi, removing her warm fingers from between the sash and fabric lying over his skin. He sat and she poured him tea.
"Will you take tea with me, Rin?" these were not the words he had planned, but it occurred to him once they were out of his mouth that he must put her at ease so that he could determine the truth of the situation. "Sit." She obeyed his command. Studying her perfect features, eyes still downcast, he felt he should get right to the point. "You are still unmarried."
He could not read her face. Perhaps she was as indifferent as she'd claimed before. "There must be many here who would seek your hand, either as wife or mistress?" He watched her reaction carefully.
He detected no deceit yet, only that familiar sadness, which infuriated him. Time for him to know. "I think even Kansei would be honored to have you." He watched her very carefully, knowing both her life and Kansei's rested on her reaction.
"Really?" She was truly surprised, which was good. He watched as her features took on a puzzled look and he sensed a slight scent of fear from her, apparently thinking on the match for the first time, which was also good.
"Would you wish such?" He probed further, his political mind calculating as his heart stirred with something yet again unfamiliar, something he recognized from observing his undisciplined brother, of all people. Sesshoumaru was confounded to realize he was feeling jealousy and the desperate hope that she did not want Kansei. Her face continued to show nothing but surprise and then betrayed her fear more openly. Clearly, she did not know how he wished her to respond, but just as clearly, she did not relish the idea of a match with the wolverine. Who can blame her? His inner voice was becoming bold.
"No, you would not," he answered his own question and his heart soared to see the relief on her face and to feel her heart slow at his words. No, she did not seek a union with Kansei and had not betrayed her lord. A multitude of unruly feelings swept him then, including gratitude for her loyalty, but also joy. He frowned openly, an expression he was only given to in private. Joy? Perhaps unwisely, he probed deeper and discovered his own happiness that in not choosing Kansei, or any other man, she might be… his.
He raised the tea cup to his lips and was horrified to feel the slightest tremor in them. Her eyes were lowered but he felt the need for a few moments to collect himself nonetheless.
"Play, Rin," he commanded.
As the notes from her instrument began to float through the space of the room, drifting out into the night on slow, soft currents and blowing gently back with the breeze to encircle him, he began a war with himself, having lost the first battle to quiet his inner voices.
You cannot afford to think these things. You have a plan to buy him, execute it! Her feelings do not matter. They never have. He recognized the voice of his mind.
What good is a spy forced into a relationship she fears? His heart's voice was softer, more cunning. How can you trust her then?
What good is a commander angry and fueled with reason to betray?
His blackmail is a betrayal already. If you give in to it now, it will encourage him to do it again, and set others against you in the same fashion.
You have no real choice; you must put Kansei in a position where further betrayal is impossible.
You do have another choice. One that will punish Kansei… one that even he cannot challenge… one that she is leaving open for you… one that you want.
His earlier plan crumbled, replaced by a new one. One in which he asserted his control of the situation, and gave Kansei no choice but to accede or defy him openly so that the commander's execution would serve to strengthen Sesshoumaru's rule even more in the eyes of the youkai who mattered.
Her music stopped, the last note hanging between them and then floating out into the darkness.
"Come with me, Rin," Sesshoumaru stood and felt his heart beat strongly in his chest, answered by hers. He moved to execute a new plan, but felt as though he was instead instructed by a dream, compelled like a hard bit of snow tumbling before a gigantic avalanche, driven and pulled down by forces beyond his control or comprehension. He moved out on to the balcony over the garden, where they would be visible to Kansei's spies, and he had some hope that the night air might clear his head. She stepped lightly behind him and he turned, opening his arm to indicate she should step to the rail next to him.
"Do you remember the day you gave me away?" she asked unexpectedly, looking out over the sleeping land below.
"Yes." Of course he remembered. "It was the day I began to reclaim my father's lands."
"The hills became alive with youkai and I was afraid," her voice was a whisper. "And then I was angry that I was nothing but a pawn in your plan." He looked at her with surprise that she had bothered to think anything else could be the case. "And then I was sad, thinking that you had thrown me away. Left me alone." His mind was disgusted with these shameless admissions of hers, but his heart was stirring, responding to the honesty and sadness in her. He felt her take a deep breath and turn, as if making a decision. She looked directly into his eyes, so different than his own.
"And then I decided that since all I wanted was to serve, I would be happy to serve in this way, as a pawn." His heart burst with disconcerting joy at these words and howled in cunning victory over his mind. She is mine! From that point on, his heart was allowed to rule without question.
"Rin." He turned towards her and looked down into her perfectly sculpted eyes that brimmed with such open emotion, such desire, that they called something similar out in him. He felt that yearning from earlier in the evening, the call to take her lips and this time he allowed it to move him, feeling the fall of his silver hair slipping off the silk on his shoulder as he bent his head and pressed his lips to hers. They were warm and soft. He felt her respond against him, melting into him, pulling him to her, and he became lost.
His arousal was instantaneous, the smell and feel of her igniting everything in him at once. He crushed her slight form to his chest, not hard enough to harm her, but hard enough to claim her. Once he was sure that the claim had been made and would not be challenged, he impatiently picked her up with his one arm and carried her inside. Laying her down on the bedding, he heard her sob and saw tears on her face. For a brief second, he saw the small child he had brought back from the shadowlands of death so long ago, tears on her face as he cradled her. But she was no longer a child and his body responded to the voluptuous curves and sensuous movements of the woman she had become. Just as he had not bothered then, he did not bother now with the reason behind her tears but came to her mouth again, pushing his way inside, hungering as she opened herself to him, inviting him in and responding ardently to his demands for entry.
Nagging thoughts of family weakness, foolishness and vulnerability washed away in the surges of desire and fulfillment that overcame him, flooding him helplessly again and again as he pushed himself into her and felt her shudder against him. All the power he held, all the forces he commanded, all that he risked - it was all worth this. Even though he hated it violently, and let some of that violence come into his actions at the peak of his joy, he finally understood his father, and even his bastard brother. Finally, their obsessions made sense to him and finally, he understood what they had understood always. He understood what was truly important for him to protect.
As he wrapped himself around her small form, breathing quietly in time with her heartbeat, he allowed the peace and darkness inside and outside to take him into contented sleep.
As the dawning sun broke the mountain, Naomasa paced the hallway outside Sesshoumaru's chamber with his personal guard standing close at hand. Why had the servant not been called? The damned youkai always woke before dawn and if the girl had been successful, why was she still inside? That bastard, Kansei, would be here soon and things would get complicated quickly, no matter what had happened behind those screens.
His patience finally frayed beyond tolerance, the diamyo stepped to the door and flung it open to snap against its frame. He placed one foot inside before stopping, frozen at the scene before him.
There was the demon's head, neatly severed as the girl had said it must be in order for him not to recover and kill them all. The monster's thick blood had soaked so thoroughly into the tightly-woven grass matting that it gave way with a squelching noise beneath Naomasa's foot. But the girl herself…
The monster's headless corpse lay on its side, as if he had still been asleep when she brought her sword down with enough force to rip the mat beneath him. Next to his body, entangled in the bloody tendrils of his hair and silks, she lay, rigid in the stillness of death. She held the demon's hand to her exposed chest, his claws stained crimson from the deep gashes she had carved into her pale skin. Although the punctures were clearly made after the murder and were not deep enough to have done her mortal damage, Naomasa realized the rumors of his poison must be true, for she was clearly dead, as surely as if he had carved her heart out of her body and thrown it away.
Naomasa responded to the horror and shock of the situation with an uncharacteristic pang of sympathy for the girl. Cast aside by the monster that raised her to adore him, he had understood her motivations for becoming a loyal pawn in the fight to free his clan from the demon's rule. But looking at her face, tear stains trailing from her staring eyes, it came to him - the poor girl had been in love with the damn demon, right to the end.
Their cremation was a cause for celebration, clansmen from all over the region coming to pay their respects to the brave shirabyoshi who's body lay high on the funereal bier and who's ashes were later preserved in the clan shrine, accorded a place of highest honor. The demon's body, incinerated in the embers themselves, were scattered into the river and sent off to the sea, banishing the curse of his rule from their lands forever.
Despite the stories of the demon ravishing the noble lady that fueled his men into vanquishing Kansei and the youkai hoards that arose at news of their lord's death; despite the legends that passed down through time of the elegant shirabyoshi who executed the demon lord in his sleep to save herself from a life of shame and her people from further slavery; despite the magic that drained from the land with the passing of the most powerful of demon lords; despite all these things that flowed from that day, Naomasa took to his grave only the death-mask image of the tragic woman who chose to serve her love in the shadowlands beyond life, rather than live with her betrayal as she walked the shadowlands of this word, without him, alone.